QR Codes, Barcodes and RFID: What’s the Difference?

QR Codes, barcodes and RFID (radio frequency identification) are all systems for conveying large amounts of data in a small format.  They offer speed, labor savings and cost savings, among other benefits.  But there are distinct differences between all 3 — and differences in the purposes they are best suited for.


A recent trend among small businesses is the growing use of QR codes.  QR codes (pictured below) are similar in one sense to bar codes, in that they contain information which can be read by a QR code reader.

QR codes can be scanned and read by a camera-equipped smartphone when you’ve downloaded a scanner app, such as i-nigma for the iPhone. What this means is that the average person can now de-code (read) a QR code, without special equipment.  You could walk into a place of business, see a QR code on an item, scan it with your smartphone, and immediately have access to a lot of information electronically.

QR Code

QR codes have been around for years.  But in the last 12 months I’ve seen usage skyrocket among entrepreneurs as mobile usages has grown. QR Codes are well suited for marketing purposes, among other uses.  For example, now it is becoming more common to receive business cards with QR Codes on them.  That way, you get access to a lot more information than can fit on a small card.  For instance, you might hand out business cards at an event containing a QR code that leads people to a Web page with a special offer for attendees.  Or the QR Code on a business card might contain a V-card (digital business card) that you can save without having to manually input the card information.

Or you might give out schwag such as a coffee mug, imprinted with a QR code where someone can find out more information about your company.  Or how about imprinting a QR Code on one of those pop-up banners when exhibiting at your next trade show?  Attendees can scan your company’s information by holding their smartphones up to the banner — so you don’t have to shell out for expensive printed materials and they don’t have to lug all that heavy paper home on the plane.

It’s not hard to generate a QR code. You can create one for free online.  In fact, the Google URL shortener automatically creates one for a Web page each time a URL is shortened.  The QR code image above is one I created using the Google URL shortener and it took me all of 2 seconds to create.

QR Codes have infinite uses in small businesses, especially for marketing, now that everybody on the planet seems to walk around glued to a smartphone.  For more information, I urge you to read How QR Codes Can Grow Your Business or download the QR Code Marketing Kit from Sunrise Signs.


Barcodes have been around for decades.  They are versatile with a large variety of uses — especially in retail and manufacturing settings, and in transport and shipping.

We’re used to seeing the common barcode printed on packaging at the grocery store or in other retail outlets, when items are passed over the barcode reader at the checkout counter to ring up a sale.  Barcodes not only are valuable at the point of sale, but also for managing inventory and raw materials internally, so that you know what you have in stock.

Barcodes have become common in shipping, to enable greater accuracy and speed in getting packages delivered.  And barcodes are used to manage large filing systems, library books, and a host of other purposes where large numbers of items need to be tracked efficiently.

Barcodes are relatively inexpensive, and help drive speed, efficiency and profitability.  For ideas about how barcodes can be used, read my earlier article:  Using Barcodes to Manage Inventory Returns.


RFID (radio frequency identification) has likewise been around for decades.  However, RFID tends to require more technological hand-holding.  RFID involves applying RFID tags to items or boxes or pallets.  Tags vary greatly in size, shape and capabilities, but one example is pictured below.  The tag with its small antenna emits a radio frequency signal that is picked up and read by a special wireless RFID reader, conveying information from the tag about the item it is affixed to.


RFID is adaptable to many of the same uses that barcodes are good for.  But RFID is especially useful in situations where vast quantities of goods must be moved or tracked, or where tracking of item-specific information is necessary.  RFID has been mandated by some customers, such as Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense, to track the vast quantities of items they require in their supply chains and to supply much more detailed information. In such situations, RFID maybe able to do it more quickly, effectively and efficiently than barcodes.

I know I’ll get blasted for saying it again, but I firmly believe it to be true:  many small businesses are not ready for RFID.  True, RFID systems have improved, becoming easier and faster to implement than even a few years ago, with more accuracy and less cost.  But for many small businesses RFID would be overkill.  Small businesses may find barcodes more within their budgets and within their people resources to implement and manage.  For more, read RFID or Barcodes: Which Are Better for Small Businesses?


RFID, barcodes and QR Codes all have their place for different purposes and under different circumstances.  As with most technology, the cost to acquire and use it keeps coming down with each passing year.  All 3 of these data management systems also have gotten much easier to implement in the past few years.  So there’s no excuse for not using technology to operate your business more efficiently and effectively — it’s just a question of which technology is better for your needs and your budget.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

23 Reactions
  1. Nice post. Next time you create a QR Code, try http://www.socialqrcode.com which has been designed for businesses to promote their social media properties with QR Codes. Users can also create coupons that are sharable on Facebook and Twitter.

  2. Do you have a tip on a good iPhone QR app?

  3. Very practical advice Anita and I agree with you that many small businesses can get by just fine with bar codes or QR codes (and that would be an upgrade for many). However, I’ve yet to come across a reliable QR app for Blackberry. Know of one?

  4. Valuable info in this post, Anita. Thanks for explaining some of the differences. I grab the QR codes from bit.ly, too, as well as from the Google shortener. But my absolute favorite QR tool is from ZXing Project (found here: http://zxing.appspot.com/generator/ ). They not only let you create the url into a code, but you can add information. I don’t think I can embed the image here in a comment, but here’s the link I created for you and SmallBizTrends, as a test.

    Link if image doesn’t show:

  5. You are correct that RFID isn’t for all size businesses but some would benefit greatly from using them. Sure cost come into play but the price of lower end RFID products has been dropping for years now.

    It depends on your business and your needs to track also.

  6. Nice breakdown of RFID, barcode and QR Code technology. FYI, QR is a 2D barcode type and is not all that different from others such as Data Matrix, which can also be used in social media to link to a website, or other important information.

    Barcode technology can be inexpensive, depending on your particular need or implementation. For instance, our barcode generation products (fonts, software, components) come as affordably as $79. Pricing does vary according to license, i.e. developer/commercial licenses are traditionally going to cost more than single users.

  7. Good article and first I’ve seen on these different technologies. Thanks for sharing. Looks like everyone’s still looking for a good QR app. I have QRReader on my iPhone which is ok.

  8. Fascinating. You may also point out the difference between static and dynamic QR codes. In dynamic qr codes, you can change data while not changing the published code. So, you can change website the code links to as often as you like. I setup some dynamic codes at http://www.bwscan.com.

  9. For iPhone users, I recommend the Bakodo app — it works the best in my opinion (for my 3GS iPhone).

    We are excited about QR codes — we have just recently launched qrpatch.com for realtors and commercial agents where they generate a mobile listing of their property on the fly with a built in QR code generator for each property listings.

  10. I think the best use of a QR code is anything that continues the conversation with the consumer. If you sell a product, connect to a behind-the-scenes video of how it is developed. If your firm is more service-oriented, create a testimonial blog with interviews of satisfied customers. Whatever your direct mail campaign message, QR codes give you the added benefit of the omnipresent, wireless web. Read more about it here!!

  11. Here’s what you can do with QR in Seattle: youtu.be/hlfndE0G74U

    RFID has a unit cost associated with it. Printing barcodes is free.

  12. As much as QR codes are growing, they will be a long time catching up to the traditional bar code, which continues to penetrate every aspect of our lives.

  13. They are good usage of QR code but as in all tech, i found it these days overused for marketing campaign or even on tv , do we really need a QR code to see the link of the day after a series or report ?

  14. Very Informative. It clears the difference between QR codes and barcodes. Great job.

  15. To create a QR Code for a site, I would like to recommend the below qr symbol generator.

  16. Good article. I have seen the QR code craze calm down a bit. NFC and RFID are likely going to displace QR codes in the future. Once iPhone starts supporting NFC (near field communication), I think this transition will start to move along a little faster.

  17. I love reading about this stuff. I personally try to add a QR code to every piece of marketing material that leaves my office, but as mentioned in a previous comment, it does seem like their popularity is decreasing. For a while, I was seeing them on the sides of trucks and throughout every aisle of the store, but I only see them every once in a while now.

  18. Can any one tel which is the lowest costamong these..?

  19. what is the process of data transmission from RFID tag to reader, is there any boud rate consideratiion??

  20. Good article, for me RFID and QR codes go hand in hand as they have different uses. I feel qr codes are totally, we use a lot of qr codes for our marketing and add them on our products to let people see a short video about our product. important to add a call for action with your qr codes to improve your scan rates. One of the better qr code generators I tested is QRzebra (https://www.qrcode-zebra.com) It’s free and you can customize your qr code.

  21. Fantastic site. A llot of useful info here.
    I’m sending it too a few pals ans also sharing
    in delicious. And of course, thank you on your effort!